There's a raging party outside my window. Flashing neon lights and pulsating music at 2am? I couldn't ask for a more fitting Colombian welcome. While my eyelids craved sleep, my hips couldn't help but gyrate to infectious Latin beats. Shakira would be proud.
I tapped into Colombia's hip-shaking, Aguardiente-imbibing, caffeine-drinking spirit the second I landed in Bogota. That first night in Zona Rosa definitely set the joyful tempo that continued throughout my South American excursion. Who knew that a country once plagued by systemic violence could be so festive.
With that said, I've highlighted top 10 activities that reflect the lighter, more exuberant side of Colombia beginning with my favorite explosive past time.
1. Colombia's National Sport
Have you heard of Tejo? Colombia's national sport involves hurling a metal disc towards a circular target filled with gun powder. Yup, you read that correctly. Toss. Score. Explode. Now that's my idea of a banging good time. Drinking local beer while pitching heavy metal objects must have affected my aim since I missed the target every single time. Despite my embarrassment, this tejo novice thoroughly enjoyed this blissful excursion.
2. Paloquemao Market - Bogota
One has to eat after all that initial hip shaking and disc tossing. Mercado de Paloquemao offers affordable gastronomic treats for hungry party animals like me. My palate was thoroughly pleased as I sampled some of my favorite market finds ever. What should you buy? There were a couple of standouts.
Mangostino (aka mangosteen) - I devoured at least 2 pounds of this tangy, deep-purple fruit typically found in Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia. $4000 pesos ($1.40 USD) per pound? What a bargain.
Lechona - Roasted pig with rice, arepa (bread made with corn meal), and local spices had me salivating for days. This local delicacy was my savory highlight even though I had to share it with 12 others. Muy delicioso.
3. Cerro de Monserrate - Bogota
After stuffing my belly with Colombian morsels, I scaled Monserrate Mountain, which offers incredible views of scenic Bogota. Que linda!
Have you visited the Benedictine abbey near Barcelona? Bogota's Monserrate was modeled after its Spanish counterpart. This 17th century church features the Black Madonna and El Señor Caldo's shrine. Worth seeing once you've navigated the 14 stations of the cross.
Tip: Make sure to take altitude meds prior to your ascent. If you don't have a prescription, grab some delicious coca tea at the outdoor market just steps from the church. A few sips and our entire group was giddy.
4. Colombian Spelunking - Zipaquirá
Now that I've seen Colombia from 10,000 feet, I couldn't wait to marvel at its subterranean beauty.
I descended 200 meters via Zipaquirá's salt mine tunnels to view one of the most stunning underground churches I have ever seen. Visitors navigate past 14 stations of the cross via dark tunnels before reaching this luminescent chapel. Only 2 salt cathedrals exist worldwide - one in Colombia and the other in Poland.
5. Off-roading across Colombia's Coffee Region
There are several ways to discover Colombia's coffee region - hike, gallop, or off-road. Hiking was a no-brainer, but off-roading catapulted this adventure to another level entirely. Our group rode these 4-wheelers across lush countrysides as we made our way towards the Hacienda Venecia Coffee Plantation in Manizales.
Crossing a river with rocky terrain was quite the euphoric treat. I could not stop giggling while this jeep jostled me out of my lethargic state.
Photo Credit - Stewart and Colette McCollum
6. Silleteros Tradition in Santa Elena
Medellin's Feria de las Flores (flower festival) features a silleteros parade, where locals showcase their floral artistry. Would you carry this heavy wooden contraption while twirling intermittently for 10 kilometers? My knees would have buckled from all that weight.
While we didn't see the actual parade, our Santa Elena-based hosts took us through the assembly process while sharing tidbits about their annual Antiqueño tradition.
7. Caballos and Carriages - Cartagena
The horse pictured below tried to bite me as our caravan meandered through calles and plazas inside Cartagena's old walled city. Our carriages were so close together that his teeth nearly grazed my head within minutes of starting our tour. Thank goodness for my quick reflexes.
Despite the bizarre incident, I can't think of a better way to experience Cartagena's bustling nightlife. Next time I'll wear a helmet.
When you're done with your tour, stop by Porton de San Sebastian near Plaza de Santo Domingo. The sautéed gambas (shrimp) with garlic were absolutely divine.
8. Jewelry Class - Caribe Museo y Factoria
Did you know that "Colombia accounts for 70-90% of the world's emerald market"?* We toured Caribe Museo y Factoria to learn about this thriving global enterprise. After our history lesson, a few of us stayed for a hands-on jewelry demonstration.
I am a woman of many talents, but jewelry making is NOT one of them. After unsuccessfully twisting wire with special pliers, I gave up and asked my instructor to create a ring on my behalf. The result was a beautifully-crafted piece. Isn't it gorgeous?
9. La Boquilla Fishing Village
I have the perfect recommendation for those seeking respite from downtown Cartagena. Ecotours La Boquilla takes you on a tranquil tour of La Boquilla's mangrove swamps. We glided across murky water while surrounded by Colombian flora and fauna.
Expect to see fishermen with nets and crates filled with fresh fish and local crab. Too bad we couldn't take any back to our hotel.
10. National Aviary - Baru Island
Love birds? If so, the 2nd largest aviary in Latin America should be your go to spot for bird gazing. This expansive enclosure houses roughly 1700 birds including this 3-toned stunner that I swooned over profusely.
I spent 2 hours gawking at flamenco rosados, owls, parrots, and the intimidating Harpy eagle.
If you seek nature retreats, head to Aviario Nacional on Baru Island for an experience you'll never forget.
Overall, Colombia is not the terrifying place Hollywood paints it to be. Crime dramas such as Narcos highlight Colombia's violent past and perpetuate its unshakeable notoriety. Drug trafficking, warring cartels, and super villains like Pablo Escobar definitely have their place in history, but the narrative has since changed.
Lonely Planet recently chose Colombia as the second best country to visit in 2017. That's a remarkable accolade given rampant corruption and bloodshed, which defined the country for several decades. Colombia has remarkably transformed from the highly-volatile place it once was into a multi-faceted region worthy of respect, admiration, and celebration.
This blog not only honors that transformation but pays homage to its euphoric, resilient spirit.
Videos: I couldn't possibly traverse these culturally-rich cities without recording sound bites of my epic South American trip. These 6 YouTube vignettes include many fabulous highlights that could not be properly summarized via photos and descriptions alone. Click on each underlined header to launch the corresponding video.
Bogota - Paloquemao Market, La Candelaria, Gold Museum, Fernando Botero Museum, Monserrate Mountain, Salt Cathedral, and Tejo.
Pereira, Cocora Valley, and Manizales (Coffee Region) - Pereira, Cocora Valley, Salento, Manizales, and Hacienda Venecia Coffee Plantation.
Medellin - Barefoot Park, Botero Plaza, Museo de Antioquia, Barrio of Santo Domingo, Santa Elena, and the Silleteros Tradition.
Cartagena - San Felipe Castle, Walled City, Emerald Museum, Jewelry Class, and Horse Carriage Ride.
La Boquilla Fishing Village - Mangrove Swamps, La Boquilla Walking Tour, Escuela visit with Dance Performance.
Aviario Nacional Bird Sanctuary - Birds...birds...and more birds.
Photo Gallery: I took 1200 photos during my trip, but couldn't feature them all. To access my top 50 photo highlights, click here.
Gate1 Travel: I highly recommend booking a guided excursion to ensure your safety. Click here to view my Gate1 itinerary.
Recommended Eats: Chicken tamale, lechona, empanadas, arepa con queso, and ajiaco sopa pictured below.
Recommended Drinks: Aguardiente (Colombia's national liquor), coca tea, and canelazo.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”